Friday, October 30, 2009
Tasting Notes #3: High West Rendezvous Rye
The third in an occasional series.
Utah and whiskey are two words that do not seem to fit together. After all, as a 150-year old outpost of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints (better known as the Mormons), the state holds a powerful reputation for being dry.
Yet in the nineteenth century, many Mormons enjoyed wine and beer and Salt Lake City sported a number of liquor purveyors. Not until church authorities began emphasizing what the faithful call "The Word of Wisdom" in the early 1900s did Utah-made distillates become a thing of the past.
In the twenty-first century, homemade alcohol returned to Utah. In the 1980s and 1990s, brewpubs made a triumphant return in Salt Lake City, Park City, and Moab. And in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a few scattered vineyards and High West Distilling popped up, taking advantage of the statewide trend toward craft brewing, craft fermenting, and craft distilling.
High West, however, has yet to sell any of their own product. The first production runs of rye whiskey produced in their Utah-based still remain in the barrel. Nonetheless, they wisely decided to build up their market share by connecting a product (procured from other distillers, likely in Kentucky) with their label on it to the long history of rye whiskey consumption in the West.
The name of this rye--rendezvous--is meant to conjure up the supposedly halycon days of the 1820s to 1840s, when American fur trappers wintered in the Rocky Mountains and gathered once a year to sell their pelts to various companies (which in turn transported them to major cities for processing) and gather supplies for the coming year. Most often held in Utah's Cache Valley or along the Green River in what is now southwestern Wyoming, these meetings often turned into raucous, even violent, frolics fueled by cheap whiskey.
Thankfully, this spirit is neither cheap nor frolic-inducing. In fact, it took home a double gold medal in the 2008 San Francisco Spirits Competition.
A mixture of two different whiskeys--a six year old straight rye and a sixteen year old straight rye, mixed with Utah water to bring the concoction to 92 proof--produces a distinct sipping experience. Again, High West did not distill either spirit, instead purchasing from existing stocks while they built their distillery in Park City. Salting away their current distillates for future sales, in the meantime they offer us this unique blended American rye.
Here's how it tastes:
Appearance: The dark, heavy, viscous body of this substantial whiskey becomes clear the second you hold your glass up to any light.
Smell: The first aroma contains mint and licorice, and if you linger over the glass, one feels a cooling sensation through the nose.
Taste: Thin on the front, with a sharp and peppery palate. The whiskey grows much more complex after a few seconds on the tongue, and finishes sweet, with notes of caramel.
Finish: Some burn, with a little bitterness that is actually quite pleasant.
Overall, this is a whiskey worth enjoying straight or on the rocks. It stands out as one of the more distinctive blended ryes on the market. But unless one is independently wealthy, I'd avoid using it in cocktails, where it's distinctiveness will wash out in the face of other flavorful ingredients. And if you don't live in Utah, you can find it at a number of major online retailers.
In the meantime, rye patriots will anxiously await the Utah-made version, coming soon.